January 30, 2021

How to enjoy Japan in December: Nagasaki

Image by JuraiJurai from PIXTA

(What kind of month is December in Japan?)

In December, winter is in full swing and the real cold is finally biting.

Snow and rain are also falling in the northern regions and along the western coastline, so make sure you plan to wrap up warm.

Don’t simply pile the big sweaters and jackets on though as there is heating on public transport and in stores.

While we do recommend extra layers, make sure that they’re easy to put on and take off.

The Japanese winter is also quite dry, so people with sensitive skin or a dry throat should make sure to moisturize and consume plenty of liquids.

Expect things like colds and flus to be going around during this season, so when you’re in a crowded area or using public transport, you can always wear a mask, wash your hands and gargle to avoid catching a nasty bug and ruining your trip.

December is about Christmas in Japan too! Japanese people end the year with a bang

December also rounds off the year which Japanese people like to celebrate.

Many countries around the world keep the Christmas spirit going well into the new year with illuminations and events, but Japan is a little different.

While the streets and shopping centers are decked with Christmas decorations from the end of November all the way to the day itself, the moment the 25th passes it’s all change and the New Year festivities begin in earnest.

In what seems like a flash, the Christmas trees are replaced with decorations celebrating the coming year (often featuring the animal of the Chinese zodiac for that year) throughout department stores and shopping malls nationwide and the shops begin to overflow with New Year goods.

The speed of this switch is a good indication of just how important Japanese people take the New Year holiday.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the area we’d like to introduce you to in this festive month and finally decided upon a tranquil place where you can reminisce on the past year in peace and quiet: Nagasaki Prefecture!

The home of Japan’s unexpected relationship with Christianity

Nagasaki Prefecture can be found on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu and is soberingly most well known as the prefecture where the second atomic bomb was dropped.

Lots of visitors come here to see the remnants of the damage caused by the A-bomb and pay a visit to the peace-promoting Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, but there’s much more to see and do in Nagasaki Prefecture than reflect on the atrocities of war.

The prefecture is surrounded by clear waters dotted with lush green islands, home to little port towns smattered with churches, and features a beautiful castle town blessed with clear springs full of colorful koi carp.

It has also experienced its fair share of hustle and bustle throughout the centuries, especially in its capacity as a sole trade hub with the West during Japan’s period of isolation thanks to its geographical location.

Image from Unsplash

This isolation period ran from 1639–1854 and was known as “sakoku.”

During this period, foreign boats and vessels were only allowed into the port of Dejima.

This point of contact with the West led to Nagasaki Prefecture becoming the first area in which Christianity propagated in Japan and is thus home to a large number of Christians and Japan’s oldest church.

And with Nagasaki’s ties to the Christian religion especially, there’s no better time than the Christmas period to journey on down to the prefecture to cleanse both body and soul before the year is out.

Lending an ear don a pilgrimage to the prayers of the people

Christianity first reached Japan in 1549.

While we talk about Nagasaki being the sacred home of Christianity within Japan, there’s a darker, sadder side to this history.

After being introduced in 1549, the Shogunate at the time eventually came to see the propagation of this alien Christian faith as an obstacle to Japanese unification and its practice was banned.

Churches were destroyed and missionaries and believers who did not renounce their Christian faith were executed.

But despite such cruel persecution, Christians continued to practice their religion in secret with each successive generation passing down their faith to the next for over 250 years.

These worshippers were known as the “Hidden Christians” who blended in with worshippers at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples so as not to arouse suspicion and practiced their own religion in caves in secret.

In Nagasaki Prefecture, you can still find sites that symbolize this unique Japanese brand of Christianity that was passed down in secret which is registered as World Cultural Heritage sites.

The first place that you should make a stop at if you’re interested in finding out more about the history of Christianity in Japan is the Museum of 26 Martyrs of Japan in Nagasaki City.

Get a glimpse of the suffering caused by the prohibition on Christianity at the Museum of 26 Martyrs of Japan

Image by sachinyan from PIXTA

This museum was built on the very same hill on which 6 foreign missionaries and 20 Christian followers were once martyred.

Here you can find all sorts of historical artefacts and documents that show how Christians continued to worship when the religion was banned.

Another good way to get to know about the Christian persecution before you come to Nagasaki is the 2016 Martin Scorsese movie “Silence”.

The movie is based on a book of the same name about the treatment of Christians in Japan during its prohibition by famous Japanese author Shusaku Endo.

The Museum of 26 Martyrs of Japan is also a site of interest from an architectural standpoint.

The architect wanted to incorporate as many of the martyrs’ feelings in the design of the building as possible and once you enter, the attention to detail becomes extremely apparent.

If you look up you will find the lights arranged in the shape of a crucifix and if you look at the window you will find scenes of the offering of flowers to those sacrificing their lives in the stained glass.

The Museum of 26 Martyrs of Japan

  • Address: 7-8 Nishizakamachi, Nagasaki, Nagasaki Prefecture
  • Opening Hours: 9:00–17:00
  • Closed: December 31–January 2

Oura Church - The oldest church in Japan

The next stop on any tour should be Japan’s oldest church - Oura Church.

It’s dedicated to the 26 martyrs and is built facing Nishizaka, which is the hill they were executed on.

Built in 1864, while Christianity was still banned, it was in the following year when some of Japan’s Hidden Christians joined the throngs of sightseers and paid a visit to the church to look upon the symbols they themselves saw in their own home and discreetly confessed their Christiany to the French priest Petitjean.

This event was known as the “discovery of the believers in the Christian faith” and it was found that during the entire 250 years when Christianity was banned, these followers had inherited and continued their faith through multiple previous generations. It became known as a miracle in Christian history.

This “discovery” happened right in front of a small statue of the Virgin Mary that had been brought from France.

Since then, this statue has been known as the “Virgin Mary of the Discovery of the Believers in the Christian Faith” and is still carefully preserved and on display in Oura Church today.

The church itself has been designated as a Japanese national treasure and received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2018.

Within the grounds, you’ll also find a courtyard with a statue of Bishop Petitjean and a museum.

Nearby lies “Glover Garden” which is home to the old residence of the Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover who came here in the 16th century.

The gardens overlook the Nagasaki harbor and are large enough for a nice, long leisurely stroll.

Oura Church

  • Address: 5-3 Minamiyamatemachi, Nagasaki
  • Opening Hours: 8:00–18:00

Glover Garden

  • Address: 8-1 Minamiyamatemachi, Nagasaki
  • Opening Hours: 8:00–18:00

The Goto Islands - the base of the Hidden Christians

If you want to know more about the Hidden Christians, then the Goto Islands are the place to go!

The Goto Islands are made up of five islands and are where the Christians who continued to practice their religion in secret moved to eventually form a unique island culture.

Even though the worshippers were poor, between them all they somehow managed to construct around 50 different churches and associated buildings, both big and small.

In fact, seeing so many churches crammed onto these small islets is one heck of a sight to see!

Image by kattyan from PIXTA

Each church is made from different materials (brick, rocks, even wood) and thus has its own character, so island hopping to see as many different churches as possible is one popular way to enjoy these islands.

If you’re going to be staying for a few nights, we recommend that you also take a break from the Hidden Christian culture and sights to enjoy the magnificent natural scenery that can be found here.

Food-wise, there are plenty of restaurants selling sushi and Japanese dishes made with fresh fish and seafood from the catch in the waters surrounding the island and you can also sample Goto Beef (sometimes called the “Phantom Cow”) here too.

The delicacies of Nagasaki

After a full day of enjoying Nagasaki’s history and culture, there’s nothing better than gorging on the local cuisine!

As mentioned above, Nagasaki used to be a busy port town and the sole port of trade with foreign nations in Japan, so even in the most traditional dishes here, it’s common to find elements of both Japanese and overseas cultures mixed together.

As well as perhaps the most famous Nagasaki souvenir, the Castella cake, which was brought here by Portuguese and Dutch traders many centuries ago, Nagasaki is also famous as the starting point of the Western-inspired “yoshoku” food culture of foods like croquettes and beef dishes.

A kaiseki course meal in Nagasaki that blends Western and Japanese food - Shippoku Ryori

Image by Ucchi from PIXTA

One famous blend of Western and Japanese styles is Nagasaki’s famous Shippoku Ryori, where multiple dishes are laid out on a red lacquer table and shared.

The beautiful plates contain fusions of flavor with a Japanese base and influences from the food cultures of China, Holland, Portugal and more.

It’s mostly served at weddings nowadays, but travellers can still experience this cuisine if you go to a traditional Japanese restaurant.

Just make sure to remember that in most restaurants the prices are likely to be up there and reservations are usually made for parties of two people or more.

Noodles - Nagasaki Champon and Goto Udon

If you come all the way down to Nagasaki then the noodles are a must!

Whether it’s Nagasaki Champon or Nagasaki Saraudon from Nagasaki’s Chinatown, Goto Udon from the Goto Islands or Shimabara’s hand-stretched noodles made with Shimabara’s spring waters, this prefecture is home to an overwhelming array of local noodle dishes.

For the winter, we recommend a bowl of Nagasaki Champon with its rich and warm seafood-based soup.

If you were to ask a Japanese person what food to try in Nagasaki, most people would suggest this dish.

Champon is a noodle dish with a soup base (like ramen) which was created when Chinese chefs replaced traditional noodle dish ingredients with those local to Nagasaki and is now regarded as Nagasaki soul food.

The flavor differs depending on the restaurant, so half the fun is finding the one you like most!

The Goto Udon from the Goto Islands may be a thinner noodle, but it has the bite and texture of udon.

It uses a technique called “jigokutaki” in which noodles are vigorously boiled in a pot to produce piping hot dishes that warm you up from the inside on a cold winter’s night.

The unique Western food culture of Sasebo

Sasebo, found in the north of Nagasaki Prefecture, is yet another foodie paradise.

Sasebo is home to a U.S. Army base and as such is also home to unique blends of Japanese and American food like Lemon Steak and the Sasebo Burger.

The Japanese Navy also used to frequent the port, so you can find other Navy-related dishes like beef stew and the desserts that used to be eaten to celebrate when the sailors came home in local cafes and restaurants throughout the city.

Other recommended eateries include the small oyster restaurants that stand above the sea at the beach where you can taste oysters fresh from the ocean from October to March, the “Tonneru Yokocho” market that’s held inside an air raid shelter that was built during the war and the ex-pat bars where you can buy beer in USD.

We hope that this article inspires you to take a soul-cleansing trip to Nagasaki Prefecture!

This year may be about to end, but we would like to thank everyone who reads Helping Dragon for dropping by.

We hope you all enjoy the ending of the year with a good reminisce (unless you’re reading this in 2020!) and that you can start this next coming year with a refreshed heart and mind.

  • Written by Sumire Hayakawa
  • Translated by Carley Radford

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